By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - One is a little bigger than he was last season. The other, a little lighter. One is outgoing. The other, more reserved. Together, they comprise the SEC’s top returning running back tandem.
“I’ve been really pleased with our first two guys,” said Tim Horton, Auburn’s running backs coach and special teams coordinator. “Kamryn Pettway has really had a great attitude and a good approach. And Kerryon Johnson has had a nice spring practice as well.”
Pettway, who led the SEC in rushing yards per game last season with 122.4, says he believes a playing weight of 235 pounds, down 10 from last year, will make him faster.
With offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s intention to balance Auburn’s offense with an increased emphasis on passing, Pettway has worked on blocking this spring.
“It’s going to be very important having backs who can protect for a quarterback,” Pettway said, “since we’re going to be throwing a lot. That will be a big key.”
Johnson, who played receiver and defensive back as well as running back in high school, caught 17 passes last season, tied for fourth on the team. Pettway caught two, but impressed his backfield mate with his receiving ability.
“I think he already has pretty good hands, especially for a guy his size,” Johnson said. “You don’t expect him to catch the ball as well as he does. His drops are very limited.”
Pettway focused on leadership during spring practice.
“I want to be able to know I’ve helped my team to bring guys further along,” Pettway said. “Being a vet coming back, I know I have to help the younger guys at my position.”
Pettway balances football with family. He and his wife, Natonya, are the parents of a 17-month-old daughter, Kaisley.
“It’s been neat to see the interaction between Kam and his little girl, and Kam and his wife,” Horton said. “I just feel really blessed because not only have we recruited good players but they’re really good people.”
Horton says he hasn’t coached many players who are married.
“Usually, as a running back coach, you don’t get into wife questions and children questions,” Horton said. “That’s been kind of fun for me, to try to be a good mentor and role model for him in that aspect.
“He’s a quiet kid so he’s not as boisterous as maybe some we’ve had in the past. His value system is very good. He’s really serious about his academics. He’s really serious about being a good dad.”
Horton says Johnson, who weighs 210 after adding five pounds since last season, benefited from his first winter conditioning program, something high school basketball and shoulder surgery prevented him from participating in previously.
“You play tailback in the SEC in an offense that’s going to run the ball a great deal, he’s going to get hit,” Horton said. “And he’s going to get hit a lot. Being able to hold up and be a lot more durable is something he’ll be able to do.
“He’s first-class,” Horton said of Johnson. “He comes from a first-class family. He’s got great personality. He’s got good balance in his life. He wants to be a good student. He wants to be a good player. He wants to be a good friend.
“He’s really everything we’re looking for in an Auburn man.”
Both of Auburn’s “Special K’s” – Kamryn and Kerryon - could see limited action in Saturday’s A-Day game while Horton seeks to determine which back will be next in line. Kam Martin, Malik Miller and C.J. Tolbert are competing for that job.
“Those guys realize that at any given moment, both of us go down, and now they’re in the spotlight,” Johnson said.
“It’s a physical league. It’s a long season. We run the ball a lot, so it’s nice to have options,” he said. “We all realize in this league, anything can happen. You always have to prepare yourself like you’re starting.”
From Tucker Frederickson to Bo Jackson, Brent Fullwood, Carnell Williams and Tre Mason – who will be honored with Auburn’s first-team All-Americans at A-day – Auburn’s tradition of backfield excellence earned the nickname “Running Back U.”
“I think running back has been a staple at Auburn University for a long time,” Johnson said. “I believe the more chances we get to make plays, the better.”
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer